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Understanding How Innovation Happens

Eugene Fitzgerald, an MIT professor of materials science, talks about how the U.S. can still be an innovation leader.

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Innovation Guru MIT's Eugene Fitzgerald

Innovation is the Holy Grail of business, the ticket to the future. A new book, Inside Real Innovation: How the Right Approach Can Move Ideas from R&D to Market -- and Get the Economy Moving, attempts to demystify that quest by breaking down the process by which innovation occurs. Its co-authors -- Eugene Fitzgerald, an MIT professor of materials science; Andreas Wankerl, a Cornell researcher; and Carl Schramm, CEO of the Kauffman Foundation -- write that the process is long and requires patience but that the U.S. is still well positioned to be an innovation leader. Fitzgerald spoke with Inc. reporter April Joyner.

What should we be doing to encourage innovation?

Just like we've introduced students to entrepreneurship, we need to introduce a broad student audience to innovation. Those who want to be in the core part of the innovation process can take not just science and engineering classes but also specialized classes that research how best to bring new technologies to the marketplace.

You argue against trying to force innovation in specific sectors. What should we be doing instead?

Sector-based investments identify a market and then find a technology that might feed into it. That has worked for a long time, because we've been in the information-age paradigm. Semiconductors, PCs, software, the Internet -- they're all part of the same paradigm. Now we're reaching the end of that paradigm, so we need to look around in all different sectors. The next great opportunity could be anywhere. The way to figure out which ideas have value is the innovation process itself. You have to investigate the technology, its implementation, and the market for a particular idea.

Are there signs of a new paradigm emerging, or will it be a long time before we see anything like the growth of past decades?

Engineers and scientists are educated with this idea that progress always happens, that one thing follows another. But just because one paradigm ends does not mean another one begins. That's probably a disturbing thought to most people. I think we're going to be in a preparadigm stage for at least 10 or 15 years, because fundamental innovations take that long to get to the market.

With rising economies in countries like China, can the U.S. afford to wait that long?

In developing countries, growth can happen just from catching up. But once they catch up, they'll be on the same curve we are. So then it just comes down to which nations have an environment that is conducive to innovation. Individual career mobility, ease of organizational disruption -- all this kind of fluidity is really important, and that doesn't exist in all countries. From that perspective, the U.S. still has the fundamental foundation for high rates of innovation.

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Last updated: Dec 1, 2010




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